Why is graduation day too late for high school seniors to worry about financial aid for college? And how should they prepare for applications ahead of time?
This month on Creating Impact Through Giving, Jessica Schwager, director of scholarships at OCCF, tells us about the tips and tricks behind a successful scholarship application. You'll also learn about a great scholarship opportunity for students in foster care, and hear the impactful story of one of our past recipients, Savien Johnson.
Apply for scholarships: occf.org/scholarships
Oklahoma Youth With Promise Scholarship: occf.org/oywp
Counselors, join our email list here: http://conta.cc/3dEmBjg
Visit occf.org to learn more!
Dan: You're listening to Creating Impact Through Giving, a podcast brought to you by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, providing you with the stories, techniques, and tools around impactful giving. On this show, we'll talk to donors, professional advisors, nonprofit leaders, and our own team of experts to identify charitable strategies that have resulted in some of our most impactful gifts.
Hello, I'm Dan Martel, and I'm glad you're joining me again on Creating Impact Through Giving. Well, it's scholarship season here at the community foundation. That means up to two and a half million dollars are up for grabs for students all across Oklahoma. Do you want to become an architect or orchestra musician, or perhaps you want to become a nurse? Well, we've got you covered. As a matter of fact, we have more than 800 different types of scholarships that are sitting in our system waiting to be claimed.
Back on episode two of our podcasts, we talked all about the process of establishing a scholarship for donors, but today we want to learn exactly what you, the students, and maybe some of your parents need to do to have the best chances of becoming one of our award recipients. Later in the pod, stay with us for a deep dive into one particular scholarship opportunity, our Oklahoma Youth with Promise Scholarship for students in the foster care system.
But first let's get all the answers and tips on the perfect scholarship application from Jessica Schwager, our director of scholarship programs. Well, Jess, welcome back to the podcast.
Jessica: Thanks for having me.
Dan: It's been a wild year for everybody, especially those that work in admissions and higher education. But before we jump into the application Q&A I want to ask you what your team has done to shift their outreach strategies and their communications with students.
Jessica: Well, to be a hundred percent honest this year has really been a struggle with trying to get applications. We are down from last year with our application numbers, but we're kind of seeing that across the board when it comes to higher education. I know there were some numbers that came out a few weeks ago that the students who graduated in spring of 2020, there was a 22% drop off from those students graduating from high school and the 22% of the students that would have typically matriculated into college just didn't this last year.
Dan: So, Jess, you'd mentioned, this is all over. This isn't just Oklahoma.
Jessica: All over, yes. All over the United States, a 22% drop off.
Dan: Would you attribute a lot of that to COVID?
Jessica: I think so, and I think that that's what they're kind of attributing this to. I think the uncertainty of not knowing if classes will be in person or online I think a lot of students ended up taking a gap year maybe, or gap years and they're trying to figure out what to do. But when it comes to our own application numbers, I mean, I think that if students are uncertain whether or not they're going to go to college they might not be inclined to apply for scholarships, or they might not be thinking about that right now.
So we've had to really get creative with our communication outreach out to students, because typically this time of year, we're going out to schools and helping students apply for scholarships, but we're not really able to do that this year. So we've been trying to do more Zoom sessions. I know Rick in our office has been connecting with counselors even more and trying to offer them some one-on-one support to get more students in our application system. Then we've been doing some kind of unique advertising this year. We did radio advertisements across the state of Oklahoma, and we've been on the radio in the mornings. We're really just trying to plug social media; as many touches as we can get out there for all of our students to apply.
Dan: Yeah. Yeah. So even though a lot has changed, some things are still the same, in that we're still gonna award millions of dollars to students across Oklahoma, right?
Jessica: Right. Correct. Yeah.
Dan: Some of these awards will go unclaimed. Is that a fact too?
Jessica: I mean, it could be, that's probably the one motivating factor for students to apply because if we don't receive applications for a certain scholarship, then we just won't award it. So there's money out there. Students need to apply for it.
Dan: Well, I hope that if they're listening right now that they're going to go to OCCF and look up what scholarship pertains to them because you're right, there's going to be a lot out there. Let's start with some questions. So what do I need to collect to apply?
Jessica: So I would recommend the first thing students do is go to our website, www.occf.org/scholarships. That's a great starting location because that lists out everything they need to do to prepare. But the most important thing on that website, I think is there's a how-to-apply video. If students look at that, they can kind of just gear up for what they need to do.
So things that they might need they might need to collect kind of some resume information. Start on a resume, a FAFSA, free application for federal student aid, get that collected. We need transcripts, we need letters of recommendation. A lot of the questions we're asking on our application are pretty similar to college admissions applications. So some of the essay questions about their career and why they're choosing their majors and things like that. So they might just make sure that they have some of that information just kind of prepared as well.
Dan: This is all done online, correct?
Jessica: Everything is online.
Jessica: A hundred percent.
Dan: All right. When are the deadlines and how can students make sure that they stay in the loop?
Jessica: Yeah, well, our deadlines have actually already started. Our very first deadline is actually in December, but our very first big deadline was February 1st. Really the deadlines are kind of rolling throughout the spring semester. I would recommend that students get in the application system right now because the majority of our deadlines are actually March 1st. So that's only a few weeks away. So it's really important to get into the system now because a lot of students, I'd say, don't even think about how they're going to pay for college until after they graduate high school. By the time they graduated it's way too late to apply for a scholarship.
Dan: So when do they really start? At what age and at what grade do they really need to start jumping into look at scholarships?
Jessica: When I talk to students, I encourage them, and their parents too, to kind of get high school juniors thinking about it at least. Then anytime I talk to a high school junior, I tell them to open up their phone and on their calendar, put an event date on their calendar for October 1st of their senior year. So October 1st of their senior year is typically when a lot of scholarship applications start opening, including the ones at OCCF.
Dan: You know, there seems to be a common misconception out there about scholarships. You know, everybody thinks, well, I have to have a 4.0 grade point average to apply. That's not really the case. So how are the scholarships awarded?
Jessica: That's a great question. We consider various factors. So we are looking possibly at GPA; if that's something that's important to that particular scholarship. We're looking at leadership, community service, work activities, we're really looking at the student as a whole, like their entire application. So it's not just one thing. It's not just a high ACT. It's not just a high GPA. We're looking kind of at the holistic view of the student's application.
Dan: Okay. So if there's a student in school that is well-rounded, very involved in the community, involved in their school, but they don't have a 4.0 they're certainly urged to apply, correct?
Jessica: Absolutely, yes. In fact, a lot of our scholarships start with...the minimum GPA requirement is typically either a 2.75 or a 3.0, so that's an A, B sometimes C student. So I would encourage students not to select themselves out of the running just because of their GPA.
Dan: I hope everybody understands that. That's good to know because that's a real common misnomer out there that people just don't realize that, gosh, just because I don't have a 4.0 means that I can't get a scholarship, which is not the case.
Jessica: Yeah, absolutely.
Dan: Well, once they apply, once everybody's on there, they have their information loaded up. What do you do to select the recipients? What's the, how does that work?
Jessica: Yes. So all of our applications are collected. We really work with students. So if there are missing materials or say a student accidentally forgot something, we typically work with a student to get that information in the system. Once that's all done, then we have this awesome group of reviewers who they're, people who work OCCF. They're people in the community that volunteer to read applications. We work with them on different rubrics and different ways to score the applications. So we have about 50 people that are a part of this big review process. So it goes to the review process and at that point in time, it's the student who has kind of the highest score and meets the criteria are awarded the scholarship.
Dan: I am curious to know if we didn't have COVID, if this were a normal school year and we give out 800, would you say more than 800?
Jessica: Right around 800.
Dan: How many applications would you normally receive in a, what we would consider to be a normal year?
Jessica: That's a good question. It's interesting because some of our application numbers are actually up over last year. The OG&E has a scholarship, and they actually got a hundred more applications this year than they did last year. So that's one thing. Then we have other scholarships that might normally get 50 applications. This year, well, actually there was one I looked at today that last year around this time had about 90 applications and they only have 16. So there's really a difference.
So what I'm doing right now is kind of working with people who help administer those scholarships, the donors, and saying, Hey, can we just extend the deadlines a bit? Students might, this might be too early right now. Let's extend the deadlines a little bit and see if we can't give students a little more time to get in the system.
Dan: Yeah and it sounds like parents and students alike are really looking to see what's going to happen with this doggone COVID.
Jessica: I know. I know.
Dan: Okay. So if I'm a student, what are my chances?
Jessica: Oh, that's a great question. I mean, while I can't necessarily predict the chances a student can receive the scholarship, the best chance a student could get a scholarship is to apply and make sure everything's completed. So it really depends on how many students also applied. It depends on how big the pool is, how much money we have to give away out of a certain scholarship. So all those factors play in, but as long as the student's application is complete, they meet the eligibility requirements, then they'll be considered for that scholarship and that's as good a chance as they can get, I would say.
Dan: I want to remind our listeners too, that the Oklahoma City Community Foundation is the state's largest independent scholarship awarder, right?
Dan: They award the most scholarships than anybody else. That's good to know, too. Okay. So let's say that I'm a student, I've been awarded a scholarship. Yay. Then what happens after that?
Jessica: Then we get to do the fun part of notifying the students, which is exciting. Some people I would say like, OG&E, Bank of Oklahoma, they do big awards presentations, and it's so much fun. What we do though, as an office, we send out award packets to the students. So these award packets will have an award letter in there and will give them the details of how they can actually receive their scholarship. There are a few steps they have to take to actually get the scholarship. This year because of COVID, we just kind of did double duty. So we made sure we sent a packet to the student, but then also sent follow-up emails as well. So I would just have students make sure they're checking their mail, checking their email for those award notifications.
Dan: Excellent. All right. What do you think, any last-minute important things that we need to remember here?
Jessica: I would just encourage students to get in the system now, don't wait. If any juniors are listening to this, I would say to, again, set an alarm or a calendar invite for October 1st of their senior year and apply early. Like I said, I think a lot of students think that scholarship applications close a lot later than they do and that's just not the case. We're coming up on our major deadline, which is March 1st here this spring. So I would just say, be aware of the deadlines, set reminders to apply, and just make sure to read all instructions on the application and make sure the applications are complete.
If students have any questions about if their materials are submitted correctly, or if they have any questions about really anything at all, the completeness of their application, they can always reach out to us. Our email address is probably the best way. It's just firstname.lastname@example.org and we can check over their applications for them.
Dan: Well, all of you guys that are looking to earn a scholarship, it's time to apply now, especially if you're a junior. The Oklahoma City Community Foundation, again, the largest independent scholarship giver in the state two and a half million dollars’ worth to more than 800. So if you're one of 800 listening, we hope, then you've done a great job. So check it out and thanks so much for returning to the pod to share all of your best practices with us, Jess.
Jessica: Thank you so much, Dan.
Dan: If you've turned on the TV over the last couple of days you may have heard the story of a very special young man. One of our scholarship recipients, Savien Johnson. Savien was only 13 when he had to leave his childhood home and was placed with a foster family. At the time, Savien already knew he wanted to make it to college, but he really didn't have any idea on how he would get there. So let's hear from Savien about what that was like.
Savien: I was 13, almost 14 years old. I believe it was in October of 2014. I was just going through a lot of verbal and physical abuse in my household and things were just kind of rocky all the time. There was never really consistency with like peace and structure in my house. So I got admitted into the system.
I didn't really know what was going on. Everything was moving pretty fast. It was my first time in the system. I had a friend in high school whose parents were foster parents and that was who I was with at the time. I was kind of confused and nervous because everything was just happening so fast. I just wanted everything to go back to normal. High school for me was great to be honest. I played sports and I was involved in a lot of student organizations, and I have a lot of relationships that I built with my teachers and friends that still affect my life today.
I thought that I was smart enough at the time to go to college and get into college. I had knowledge of like scholarships and things. So I knew that that would be an option for me after school, but with the things that were going on, like the foster care system and just in my life, I wasn't sure that I would have the opportunity to go.
Dan: I am now with Wanda Minter scholarship coordinator at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and also probably one of our longest-serving employees. Is that right, Wanda?
Wanda: Yes, I will be here 23 years in December.
Dan: Well, congratulations. That is quite a distinction. But more importantly, you know, all about these students and, and what it takes for some of them to dare to dream about going to college one day. You've been part of the team that works to administer the Oklahoma Youth with Promise Scholarships every year. These students are students that have recently aged out of the foster care program or who are currently in the program is that correct?
Wanda: That is correct.
Dan: Hearing stories like Savien's it really does hit home as to why it's so important to lower these barriers of entry into higher education, especially for populations that have had it harder than others. First Gen kids, non-traditional students, students with uncommon career choices, we have scholarships for pretty much all of these groups, but for now, let's focus on Oklahoma Youth with Promise. How did this program come about?
Wanda: It was established in 1988. When it first came about, it was named the Kids with Promise Plaza Scholarship Foundation. It was founded by Dick Coylr, Carolyn Barry and their families, and owners of the Nichols Hills Plaza Shopping Center. But in 1996, they renamed the scholarship The Oklahoma Youth with Promise Scholarship Fund. It was established for students that were in foster care or that had aged out of foster care. They wanted it geared toward these students because we know that these students have lived a different form of life where things are not just accessible to them in an easier fashion, if that makes sense. So we accept students that have been in the foster care system or that are in group homes. So that is basically where that came about; wanting to manage a scholarship for these students who did not have that financial stability from living in a traditional home.
Dan: Man that is....who knows how many foster kids are out there that probably think to themselves, well, heck I'd like to go to college but I have no idea how I will ever get there.
Wanda: It is amazing how many students that we do come across that really feel like that they don't have a chance at college. With this particular scholarship, they have to maintain a GPA of a 2.0 in high school and in college. Basically, we don't turn down any students after we have figured out that they have been in the foster care system.
Dan: That's really good to know. Well, how do you work with students and DHS counselors throughout the process? How does that work?
Wanda: Well, once you build a relationship with these students, which is one of the most awesome things for me, you build a relationship, and once that relationship is built, especially after they have aged out of the foster care system because once they've aged out, they have very little contact with their ETV specialist. Some of them still have contact, but most of them really literally don't have contact. So once you've established contact with that student, then they will eventually come back to you for many of our scholarships.
Dan: What's the impact of the scholarship been like on students that you've met that have received this particular scholarship?
Wanda: These young people are just so amazed that there is a scholarship that is just built for them. Most of them that do go to school, once they graduate from college or have some type of college experience, whether it's vocational, a four-year college or two-year college, they want to go back and they want to help their community.
Dan: Well, you know it's funny, when we were talking to Savien, one of the things that he mentioned, he's kinda got a plan. He's got a major selected that he's picked out. The big thing that I was so impressed with, he said, when I get out of college, I want to join the air force and serve my country.
Savien: After I graduate, I would like to join the air force as an officer and get a job either in the medical field or in communications and serve my country. Nowadays I'm able to use that as motivation to like help myself pursue my goals. I look back and I think, man, I came far. It really helped me pursue my goals in school and everything. Number one, it helped financially. I was able to continue to pursue my goals in school without putting a strain on myself while working. It also helped me because I understand that there's a lot of people that are in my corner.
Wanda: That is awesome. That's what these kids really want to do. They have a close family, even if they're not the traditional family.
Dan: I want to talk a little bit about some of the things that you want to leave the kids that might be listening to this podcast. What should they be doing at this point?
Wanda: If they have any questions at all, feel free to call me at any time. We will walk them through that process. This is one of those scholarships that we just don't drop it in their lap and say, we're done. We do none of our scholarships like that, but this is one of those scholarships that we kind of just kind of take them by hand and help them along the way. No question is a dumb question or a stupid question. Every question is legitimate. So we will walk them through that process. We will make sure that they get that transcript or they get that financial aid report and that they are making that GPA of a 2.0 throughout their college. One of the good things about this particular scholarship is that it actually goes up until the age of 25.
Dan: This is a pretty good scholarship. Can you tell us what this is worth?
Wanda: Once they come in as a freshman, it is a $3,000 award. Once they exceed 60 hours toward that undergrad degree, then there is an enhancement there. We work really closely with their ETV specialist to make sure that they're on the right path and that they are making academic progress and that scholarship will exceed to a $5,000 award.
Dan: Wow, $3,000 - $5,000 a year. That is very impressive. What's a good way to reach you if you're a parent, a counselor, or a student that wants to talk to you, Wanda? How do they get in touch with you?
Wanda: You can always email me, and they can email me at www.occf.org/scholarships, or they can always call me at (405)606-2907.
Dan: All right. That's Wanda Minter (405) 606-2907. If you have a question about the Oklahoma Youth with Promise Scholarship, Wanda Minter your point of contact here at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. We hope you'll give her a call or send her an email at www.occf.org/scholarships. Thank you so much for talking to us about this amazing program today, Wanda.
Wanda: Thank you.
Dan: If you want to listen to Savien's full story, head over to www.occf.org/stories or visit the Oklahoma City Community Foundation YouTube page. And students if you're still here, thank you for sticking with us. But really though, what are you doing? Head over to www.occf.org/scholarships and apply right now. You can be auto-matched to more than 800 opportunities before you head to bed tonight and could spend your next semester on campus or virtually with a lot more time studying and less worrying. That's it again for me, I'm Dan Martell and I'll see you next time on Creating Impact Through Giving.